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Photo: SZ Photo/Bridgeman Images
A scene from the animated film “The Adventures of Prince Achmed,” by the late Lotte Reiniger. Before there was such a thing as Disney Studios, she was using intricate hand-cut silhouettes to make movies.

Society has become so accustomed to Disney and Pixar types of animations that it has lost sight of predecessors in the field.

In a step toward restitution, Devi Lockwood wrote for the New York Times series Overlooked (“obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in the Times“) about an early animation artist we all should know.

“A decade before Walt Disney Productions came into existence, making its name synonymous with animated films, there was another pioneer of the art form — Lotte Reiniger.

“Reiniger’s filmmaking career spanned 60 years, during which she created more than 70 silhouette animation films. … She’s perhaps best known for her 1926 silent film ‘The Adventures of Prince Achmed,’ a fantastical adaptation of ‘The Arabian Nights’ that was among the first full-length animated features ever made.

“Charlotte Reiniger was born on June 2, 1899, in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin to Karl and Eleanor (Raquette) Reiniger. She studied at the Charlottenburger Waldschule, where she learned about scherenschnitte, the art of cutting shapes and designs in paper with scissors. The art form originated in China and later became popular in Germany. …

” ‘I began to use my silhouettes for my playacting, constructing a little shadow theater in which to stage Shakespeare,’ she wrote in 1936 in Sight and Sound magazine.

“At first she wanted to be an actress, but that ambition changed when, as a teenager, she encountered the film director and actor Paul Wegener after a lecture he had delivered in Berlin on the possibilities of animation in cinema. Fascinated by his films, like ‘The Student of Prague’ (1913) and ‘The Golem’ (1915), she persuaded her parents to enroll her in a theater group at the Max Reinhardt School of Acting, where Wegener taught.

“For fun she cut silhouettes of the actors in the group. Wegener was impressed [and] enlisted her to help with his 1918 film, ‘The Pied Piper of Hamelin.’ …

“Her work with Wegener led to her admission to the Institute of Cultural Research in Berlin, where she met the art historian Carl Koch. He would become her husband and a collaborator on her films. …

“Reiniger’s editing was meticulous. Starting with more than 250,000 frames [for ‘Prince Achmed’], she and her crew used just over 100,000 in the film, which ran for an hour and 21 minutes, each second requiring 24 frames. It took three years to complete, and premiered in the Volksbühne, or People’s Theater, in Berlin, when Reiniger was 27. …

“Reiniger designed a complex process to make her films. She cut each limb of each figure out of black cardboard and thin lead, then joined them together with wire hinges. For research, she spent hours at the Zoo Berlin, watching how the animals moved. …

“When Hitler was in power, Reiniger and her husband left Germany for France, Italy and England, where they collaborated with other puppeteers, funders and artists before returning to Berlin in 1944 to look after Reiniger’s mother. In 1948 they moved to London, where they joined a nearby artists’ colony. Reiniger then directed a series of short children’s films for the BBC.

“Her husband died in 1963, and she stopped making films. But in 1972 she was recognized with the Golden Reel Award at the Berlin Film Festival for her contributions to German cinema. Two years later, the Goethe Institute sponsored her on a lecture tour of Canada and the United States.

“ ‘A Reiniger revival swept North America,’ the Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail wrote.

“The tour inspired her to make a few final short films, including ‘The Rose and the Ring’ (1979), a 24-minute adaptation of the 1854 satirical work of fiction by William Makepeace Thackeray, and ‘Düsselchen and the Four Seasons,’ a two-minute film completed in 1980. She died on June 19, 1981, in Dettenhausen, Germany. She was 82.

“[The] Times film critic A.O. Scott recalled her in a 2018 article about the unsung women who had advanced the art of filmmaking. Praising Reiniger’s ‘blend of whimsy and spookiness,’ Mr. Scott wrote that her ‘dreamy images that seem to tap right into the collective unconscious suggest both an antidote to Disney and a precursor to Tim Burton.’ ”

More at the New York Times, here.

You might also be interested in the Armenian shadow puppets I wrote about in 2018, here.

Lotte Renniger’s film about Jack and the Beanstalk.

 

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Photo: Brain Pickings
Kelli Anderson works on paper flowers for an animation illustrating Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Optimism.”

If you haven’t discovered Maria Popova’s blog Brain Pickings yet, I hope that you will. Not only do I got the very best ideas there for books to buy the grandchildren, I learn more than I can say about literature and science — and the intersection of the two.

In one recent post, Popova talks about asking a cut-paper artist to create a short animation to illustrate a Jane Hirshfield poem. I loved reading about the thought process behind this project.

“One spring morning in 2017, walking along a San Francisco sidewalk,” writes Popova, “I was arrested by the sight of a tiny weed poking through the crevice between a concrete wall and a chain link fence, boldly blooming in its yellow gramophone blossoms. I stood there marveling at its persistence, remembering Gwendolyn Brooks’s beautiful lines: ‘Wherever life can grow, it will. / It will sprout out, / and do the best it can.’

“Poetry was on my mind that day — I was in the final stages of composing the inaugural Universe in Verseand was on my way to meet the poet and ordained Buddhist Jane Hirshfield, whose work I had cherished for years and who had kindly contributed to the program her mighty protest poem about the silencing of science and nature.

“A year passed. When I invited Jane to participate in the second annual Universe in Verse, we chose her spare and lovely poem ‘Optimism’ for the show. … It instantly reminded me of the irrepressible yellow blossoms I had seen the day Jane and I first met. I had a sudden vision of bringing the poem to life in an animated stop-motion short film. …

“I enlisted the imaginative help of artist, designer, papercraft engineer, and my longtime collaborator Kelli Anderson — a wrester of wonder from ordinary objects and creator of the wondrous This Book Is a Planetarium. …

OPTIMISM
by Jane Hirshfield
[from Each Happiness Ringed by Lions]

More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,
mitochondria, figs — all this resinous, unretractable earth. …

“Find more highlights from The Universe in Versehere.”

Read the rest of Popova’s post at Brain Pickings, here, where you can also enjoy the delightful animation made from cut paper. (I’m thinking 18th C botanical paper artist Mary Delany would have loved the ability to create an animation.)

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Art: Steve Cutts
A short animation about the rat race you are sure to recognize.

Slippery Edge has the most amazing blog. It’s full of original works by artists, photographers, animators, musicians. I have long wondered how s/he gets permission, but the posts do send readers to the originators’ websites.

I’m especially enamored of the short animations Slippery Edge posts and just had to share this one by Steve Cutts about the rat race. I thought it was so on-the-money, having squeezed myself into subways like that for many years. All that’s missing are treadmills, which always look to me like something you put in a rat’s cage.

The poor rat in the video thinks he’s on the track of happiness and keeps pursuing whatever contemporary voices — media, advertising, the world at large — suggest is the road to happiness. The message I take away is that I better figure that out for myself and not get distracted by unknown entities’ self-serving promises.

Watch the short animation and see what Slippery Edge has to say about the artist, here.

See also:
http://www.stevecutts.com/
https://stevecutts.wordpress.com/
https://www.facebook.com/SteveCuttsArt

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Gudetama, a gloomy egg yolk in a Japanese cartoon series, is one manifestation of an offbeat sense of humor that some observers see as uniquely Japanese.

Patrick Winn wrote the Global Post story.

“Is it possible to market malaise? In Japan at least, the answer is yes. Meet Gudetama, the anthropomorphic embodiment of severe depression.

“Gudetama is a cartoon egg yolk that feels existence is almost unbearable. It shivers with sadness. It clings to a strip of bacon as a security blanket. Rather than engage in society, it jams its face into an eggshell and mutters the words, ‘Cold world. What can we do about it?’

“Gudetama may hate the world beyond its shell. But the world — within Japan’s borders, at least — sure loves Gudetama.

“The misanthropic egg was introduced last year by Sanrio, a Tokyo-based corporation devoted to creating cutesy characters and licensing out their images. Its flagship character, Hello Kitty, is valued at $7 billion and appears on lunch boxes and pajama sets across the globe.

“Gudetama is following Hello Kitty’s lead. Its distressed little face now appears on fuzzy slippers, iPhone covers, plush dolls and even a themed credit card by Visa. …

“Matt Alt, a Japanese-speaking American and specialist in Japan’s pop culture, [decodes] Japan for Western audiences. [He opines that] in Japan, there’s a long history of personifying and anthropomorphizing inanimate objects.

“Gudetama is the most recent of a long, long lineage of mascot characters. Many Japanese mascots will express emotions that Western mascots would not. In the West, mascots are used almost exclusively to cheer people up. In Japan, they’re often used to get a point across or act as mediators in situations where you wouldn’t want to express yourself directly.” More here.

Some US advocates for people with mental illness object strongly to  humor on the subject (even criticizing phrases like “wild and crazy guy”). Others recognize that there are those who use humor to help themselves get well. Wonder what they would think of this egg yolk.

Photo: Sanrio

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The website Narratively just alerted me to something cool from StoryCorps, a feature I generally hear on National Public Radio (NPR).

According to the StoryCorps website, “The first-ever animated feature from StoryCorps, Listening Is an Act of Love, presents six stories from 10 years of StoryCorps, where everyday people sit down together to ask life’s important questions and share stories from their lives. Framing these intimate conversations is an interview between StoryCorps founder Dave Isay and his nine-year-old nephew, Benji.

Listening Is an Act of Love will be broadcast by public television stations nationwide. … on varying dates through February 2014. Can’t wait until the animated special airs on your local station? Watch on PBS Roku and Apple TV channels — available on DVD, too!” More here.

(At ny1.com, here, you can read how recording people’s stories caused Isay to take a permanent detour from his medical school ambitions.)

Do you have favorite StoryCorps stories? Have you ever created one?

I have a tape of my father reading the Kipling story “The Elephant’s Child” and poems he loved like “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” which always choked him up. But if you do a StoryCorps story, you get it archived at the Library of Congress — probably more permanent than my old cassette tape.

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She’s a mild-mannered school teacher in Pakistan — unless education for girls is threatened, and then, watch out! She’s the Burka Avenger!

Salman Masood and Declan Walsh have the story at the NY Times: “Cartoon fans in Pakistan have been excited by the arrival of the country’s first caped crusader, in the form of a female superhero who flies through the air, battling villains using pens and books.

“The heroine, Burka Avenger, is certainly an unusual role model for female empowerment in Pakistan: a woman who uses martial arts to battle colorful villains …

“But the cartoon, in which a demure schoolteacher, Jiya, transforms into the action heroine by donning a burqa, or traditional cloak, has also triggered an awkward debate about her costume.

“ ‘Is it right to take the burqa and make it look “cool” for children, to brainwash girls into thinking that a burqa gives you power instead of taking it away from you?” asked the novelist and commentator Bina Shah in a blog post.

“The criticism has not overshadowed the broader welcome that Burka Avenger, which aired [in Islamabad] for the first time on Sunday evening, has received. With slick computer animation, fast-paced action and flashes of humor that even adults can appreciate, the character could offer Pakistanis a new cultural icon akin to Wonder Woman in the United States.”

And she is generating some thoughtful discussions about the role of girls and women and the importance of education for girls.  The show’s maker, pop star Aaron Haroon Rashid, points out that the burka is merely the heroine’s disguise.

(An excellent disguise indeed, used effectively by the playwright Tony Kushner in Homebody/Kabul, about a Western woman who leaves home and disappears in Afghanistan.)

Read more about the cartoon show here.

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Today I met up with Asakiyume and her daughter the Animator in Fitchburg, a run-down postindustrial city with a lovely little museum, established in 1929 by artist and one-time resident Eleanor Norcross. The show we came for, on graphic art, was put together by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., and is traveling to New York. Definitely worthwhile. So is the Fitchburg Art Museum itself.

I enjoyed seeing what caught the attention of my companions among the wide variety of graphic styles and stories. For me, the book by Brian Fies on his mother’s cancer and a different book illustrating Kafka’s Metamorphosis were of special interest.

One fun thing was an actual bedroom set up to suggest where a typical comic-loving teen might hang out. The Animator scrutinized the book collection and pronounced the teen’s taste eclectic.

I recognized the art of Lynd Ward, although I did not know he created novels without words. The series in the museum was the novel Gods’ Man, described at the Library of America site:

“Gods’ Man (1929), the audaciously ambitious work that made Ward’s reputation, is a modern morality play, an allegory of the deadly bargain a striving young artist often makes with life.”

If you scroll down at the website, you can see woodcuts from the book.

Asakiyume asked me how I knew about Lynd Ward, and I had a vague memory of a children’s book, possibly of folk tales. I don’t think the book I remembered was The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge although Ward was the illustrator. It might have been The Biggest Bear.

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